Thursday, 5 November 2009

If Literacy is social practice why do we need to talk about Texts?

I gave a talk at the OU yesterday called 'Literacy in the Digital University' (good title eh?) at which the audience was a mix of people from learning technologies and language & communication backgrounds. It was basically a development of the talk that Mary Lea and I did at the Edinburgh seminar - the slides and paper/notes are here (paper/notes) and (slides).

I took the opportunity to rehearse a critique of some of the discourses of transformation through technology that are prevalent in our university, through its distance learning practices and its connections to the wider 'learning 2.0' community. I tried to counterpose a discourse of academic values and the public mission of universities, using a 'literacies' perspective to look through the technological practices at the social relations which underlie them.

I used a slightly adapted version of Helen's 'Academic Values and Web cultures: points of rupture' table that she based a discussion on at the Edinburgh seminar ( to point up how much we don't know about 'Net' communities, as opposed to 'Academy' ones, and how much we don't know about the potential impact of 'Net' cultures of knowledge on the historical mission of universities to educate in a broad, critical and ideologically-aware sense.

I was a bit surprised myself championing the rather conservative cause of preserving the Academy's practices against the radical (and youthful) iconoclasm of the Net - what would my 1968 self have thought about that I wonder?

But what gave me most cause for thought were some questions of Mary H's ontological kind (see previous post) that came at the end, chiefly from my Learning Technologist colleagues. In particular: If Literacy is 'social practice' why talk about Texts? Why not just talk about social practice?

I think people resist the notion that practices around learning with technologies can be adequately described in terms of textual practice. Partly this is a hangover from the intuitive idea that text really means print, but it also reflects the view that digital communication is real life interaction and can no more be encapsulated in its textual residues than a face to face meeting can be recreated in all its complex interactions from its minutes.

My answer at the time (helped by Mary L) was that we aren't just talking about social practice in general, because we are focusing on practices in the university, which are uniquely defined in terms of texts. This is what a Literacy perspective brings to the better understanding of teaching and learning in these contexts. But as Mary H points out - it is always going to be the case that what we currently call texts are what define practice in higher education? As HE gets more intermingled with other social fields (industry, commerce, the professions, popular culture - see Mandelson's 'Higher Ambitions' framework) and as practice-oriented communication becomes more mutimodal and time-shifted and otherwise dispersed won't the notion of text as a defining characteristic of university practice become less and less relevant?

Well - it will be interesting to see how the 'outputs' of digital scholarship shape up. My money says they'll look pretty textual, even if they are digital.

..and if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck..


  1. @robin

    Having thought some more about your presentation and using my studying technology lens I think you need to refine your arguments to take into account the affordances of technologies and particularly digital technologies in creating 'academic artefacts'.

    One aspect of this is that available and readily usable technologies have privileged the written texts as the main academic artefact, whether that was quill and paper or an email. Writing can be seen as a technology in itself and helps structure texts in terms of grammar but also form e.g. the essay vs the report. Texts dominate because the technology has enabled then to do so. Digital technologies and in particular their non-rivalled abundance features (in economic terms) means more people have more opportunities to create more lasting texts than has ever been the case before in human history.

    The greater availability of digital technologies allows many more people to create lasting visual artefacts (photos, diagrams, movies) or oral artefacts (podcasts, songs) than ever before but all these have a very short history of significant use compared to writing (literacy). Thus while oracy/articulacy and graphicacy are also talked about being in the wider 'literacies' stable there is a much less well formed and universally understood set of 'rules' for 'writing and reading' such visual or oral artefacts in general or in academia (what is the grammar of a digram for instance?). Yes we have had vivas to test articulacy (among other things) but these were ephemeral and not subject to recording and further use and review in the way that a paper TMA has been.

    I do not think that these other 'literacies' will blow away (mainly) written texts as the dominant academic artefacts but we do need to look and possibly embrace some of then as equally valid forms of expressing academic discourse and debate.

    Andy Lane

  2. Just had a blindingly obvious thought!
    Having waded through treacle in my last posting about technologies always being part of literacies, the other side of this coin is that, in the kinds of contexts we are interested in, of course literacies and texts are always part of technologies That's why we need to talk about texts.

  3. I've been thinking about Andy's comments above for the last week and trying to compose a response short enough to be a comment and not a fully-fledged post!

    I wanted to pick up the notion of 'affordances' again, as I've always found this concept a bit slippery. They work in both directions don't they - artifacts afford uses for specific users: screens are for the sighted, social networks are for the sociable etc.

    The question of what counts as a digital 'academic artefact' is a crucial one as it implies the question what is academic about the user too.

    Is it the case that writing became privileged in the academy because of the available technologies (pens, printing etc.)? Or was it part of more general 'turn to the text' that characterised an increasingly complex and professionalised order of communication in society?

    'Writing as a technology' moves us towards quite a broad concept of technology - like Foucault's 'technologies of the self' meaning practices and techniques rather than media and tools. I guess this is where we might want to be, from a 'literacies'perspective, but I'm not sure where the concept of affordances fits in here.

    Just out of interest, I believe that in France the public oral PhD viva still survives in tandem with an extensive documentation process that is used to validate and record the viva outcomes.

    I agree that we need to embrace non-written textual forms as ways of expressing aspects of discourse and debate in the academy (in both its public and professional roles)- how the doing so will change the nature(s) of academic community(ies)is the question!